It seemed like the Buffalo Sabres’ organization received a surge of excitement from the moment new owner Terry Pegula took over. The team was in a dire situation months before that happened, especially when Derek Roy went down with a knee injury that ended his season (save for a single appearance in Game 7 of the team’s first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers).
The Sabres made a spirited run toward the playoffs, narrowly outlasting teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs for one of the final two spots. They made the aggressive (if questionable) move to acquire Brad Boyes during the trade deadline and generally seem willing to spend the money to go from a solid, playoff-ready team to a genuine contender in the East.
This prompts two important questions: is GM Darcy Regier smart enough to make the right moves and will head coach Lindy Ruff be able to guide that roster once it is completed?
No doubt about it, the Sabres have a lot of questions to answer this off-season. That could be a really good thing (the team should have $15.6-$18.6 million to work with if they plan on spending to the cap ceiling) or a bad one (they have 13 players under contract, with 7-10 spots to fill) depending on the decisions Regier makes.
For the sake of this exercise, we’ll just look at the players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents come July 1.
Tim Connolly (unrestricted, previously made $4.5 million) – Going into the stretch run, it seemed like Buffalo’s “Mr Glass” would be an obvious goner. Through his first 47 games, he scored just 26 points. Yet he seemed to get things together in March, scoring 16 points in his last 21 games. Finishing the 2010-11 season strongly (and an encouraging 65 points in 78 games in 09-10) might make him tougher to dismiss in Buffalo if he’s willing to take a pay-cut and short-term deal.
Nathan Gerbe (restricted, previously made $850 K) – In my mind’s eye, I tend to mix up Gerbe and Tyler Ennis with disturbing frequency. Maybe it’s the fact they’re both short in stature; perhaps it’s their unusual numbers (Gerbe wears 42; Ennis sports 63). Either way, they’re both undersized players who can provide some magic to the team’s forward mix. Buffalo will have to pony up a moderate raise for Gerbe this summer and a more significant one for Ennis in 2012.
Rob Niedermayer (unrestricted, $1.25 million); Mike Grier (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – These are two aging veterans who make marginal impacts in the regular season until their rugged play, hockey intelligence and experience helps more in the playoffs. The Sabres might be wise to offer them two-way contracts at this point in their careers.
Other unrestricted free agent forwards:
Matt Ellis (625K)
Mark Parrish (600K)
Mark Mancari (575K)
Cody McCormick (500K)
Jhonas Enroth (restricted, $867K); Patrick Lalime (unrestricted, 650K) – Do the Sabres have their much-needed backup for all-world goalie Ryan Miller in Enroth? They certainly don’t in Lalime, who was basically a second goalie coach toward the end of the 2010-11 season. Enroth didn’t receive a ton of opportunities to prove himself one way or the other, but he did save the Sabres season, so maybe a modest backup deal for two years is in order.
Marc-Andre Gragnani (restricted, $500K) – After scoring three points in only nine regular season games, Gragnani was a difference-maker in the playoffs, putting up an outstanding seven points in seven contests. He might not be the offensive defenseman they’ve been dying for, but he could be a solid depth option and stopgap solution. The question is: how much will that hot run cost the Sabres?
Andrej Sekera (restricted, $1 million); Steve Montador (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – Neither of these defensemen are “world-beaters,” but they received around 20 minutes per game at affordable clips. Sekera has far more promise than Montador from a long-term perspective, but both of their negotiations will come down to price.
Mike Weber (restricted, $550K); Chris Butler (restricted, $850 K) – Again, these are two defensemen who are expendable but might be retained if their asking prices are modest. Like Sekera, they own the advantage of being younger since they’re all 24 years old.
As you can see, the Sabres have a lot of decisions to make, but there aren’t a ton of make-or-break questions to answer (not after signing Drew Stafford to a contract extension, at least). Signing Gerbe, Enroth and Gragnani will likely require the toughest negotiations while the other players require judgment calls.
It’s not crazy to wonder if the team might make a big pitch for Brad Richards considering their copious amounts of cap space and limited options to improve their biggest weaknesses on defense. Either way, we’ll keep you informed as the Pegula era truly beings in Buffalo this summer.